Dec 022023

I just came across a quote attributed to Einstein: “If I had foreseen Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I would have torn up my formula in 1905.

The problem with this quote is that it is utter nonsense, and not something Einstein likely would have said, ever.

An image of Einstein that is just as real as some of the quotes attributed to him. Courtesy of Midjourney.

The “formula” of mass-energy equivalence simply states that an object’s resistance to motion (its inertia) is proportional to its energy-content. That is all. Yes, I know that in the popular imagination, \(E=mc^2\) is frequently associated with the nuclear age. But that’s nonsense. \(E=mc^2\) is not about “converting” anything into anything. Mass-energy is mass-energy, and it is conserved. Whether it is in the form of the nuclear binding energy of a uranium atom (or for that matter, the chemical binding energy of carbon atoms in a fireplace log) or in the form of the kinetic energy of photons released by a nuclear or chemical reaction has absolutely nothing to do with \(E=mc^2\): the formula does not explain nuclear fission any more than it explains the chemical reactions that govern the burning of wood.

But then, what about this quote, which appears in a number of reliable places, including Wikiquotes?

It is attributed to a book published by a William Hermanns, who supposedly interviewed Einstein on a number of occasions between the late 1920s and Einstein’s death in 1955.

The person appears real. I found, in Google’s archive, the May 2, 1955 issue of Life, which includes a personal recollection of one of Life’s own editors, William Miller, of his very last visit to Einstein, when he actually met William Hermanns.

Hermanns’s book, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man, is also real: In fact, it even has a Kindle edition.

But… how much of it is true?

Considering that Hermanns has an exceptional biography (which one can read on a Web site dedicated to his life) it is more than a bit odd that the only references to his name in Wikipedia are Einstein-related. Yet his name does not appear in notable Einstein biographies, including Abraham Pais’s definitive scientific biography, or Walter Isaacson’s exceptionally good Einstein bio.

When I read the few pages of Hermanns’s book that are available as a Kindle preview, I grow even more suspicious. For instance, according to Hermanns, already in 1927 Einstein was “marked by Nazis as ‘Enemy number One of the Nation,’ and the object of at least seven plots to take his life.” News to me.

But then, Hermanns goes on to quote Einstein who supposedly said, “When I was about five, my father gave me a compass as a toy. I wanted to find out why the needle never deviated […] When I asked my uncle, an engineer, he immediately proceeded to teach me some fundamentals of algebra, with this advice: ‘What you don’t know, call x, then hunt til you find what it is.’ From that time on, I have called everything I didn’t know x, especially magnetism.

As I asked ChatGPT just moments ago, can you imagine Einstein saying these words, in 1927, to a stranger who just visited him?

Long story short, I don’t know what to think. Based on what I have read, I do not believe Hermanns’s accounts of his conversations with Einstein are credible. At the very least, they must be severely distorted versions of Einstein’s words, probably deeply colored, warped by Hermanns’s imagination. For what it’s worth, ChatGPT concurs: “The lack of independent verification and recognition in authoritative sources casts doubt on the accuracy and credibility of his accounts. Your reservations about accepting Hermanns’ narratives as factual are well-founded.”

 Posted by at 11:32 pm